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No need to panic

bombs & butterflies
bombs & butterflies
By Widespread Panic

Capricorn Records: 1997

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This review first appeared in the April 12, 1997 edition of the American Reporter.

Widespread Panic is a throwback to the '70s. No, they don't play arena rock or mindless heavy metal. Rather, the Athens, Ga.-based band harkens back to a time when rock bands took pride in musicianship and took chances – when rock was still fun.

For "bombs & butterflies" is, above all, fun. For one, almost all the songs are listenable – it's not just one or two singles and a bunch of filler. And there are special effects here; weird little inside jokes that make you pay attention and listen to what's going on – the kind of stuff Pink Floyd used to do back before they started taking themselves seriously and turning out tripe like "The Wall."

And it's kind of neat that it was these guys who came out with this album, because if not unexpected from the quirky Widespread Panic nor was it predictable based on their earlier releases.

What sets "bombs & butterflies" apart from its predecessors is the songs – they're simply better written. Or at least better arranged and more deftly performed. Whatever the reason, Widespread Panic sounds much more radio-friendly this outing without losing any of the artistic range that made their earlier albums such interesting listening.

The album starts off in an alternative rock vein with "Radio Child," a cranking little rocker with a definite edge. "Aunt Avis" opens with a funky back beat and haunting organ figures; the vocals by lead singer John Bell and guest Vic Chesnutt are disturbingly Crosby Stills & Nashish, as is the song's arrangement. "Tall Boy" starts off with a classic bit of Southern rock piano and guitar interplay, and builds on it – with some very cool impressionistic lyrics to boot:

Snapshot lighting Silhouette expressions monumental faces
In the flesh of Cypress trees and killing vines
Naked in the mud girl, let's sling a little mud girl
Just looking for a place to shed our skin

"Gradle" slows the pace down, but oh what a ballad: Fine-honed intensity that's translated to tautness rather than volume. Even on a forgettable rocker like "Glory," Widespread Panic is more entertaining than most bands out there because they're such damn fine musicians – like The Band, you're content to simply let them jam. While they pick it up again with "Rebirtha," which has a funky, redneck-in-New Orleans feel to it, "You Got Yours" is as flat as "Glory."

"bombs & butterflies" ends strongly with a great trio of songs, the first of which is likely to end up on oldies stations in 10 years or so. "Hope in a Hopeless World," their first single from the album, has all the ingredients of the quintessential rock hit: an accessible melody with great hooks; a couple of nice solos; smooth vocals that stay in your head. "Happy" is the album's only instrumental, and shows Widespread Panic can break it out with anyone. "Greta" is smart-ass political song, reminiscent of Neil Young's harder material – and it ends with several minutes of an ambience recording of crickets in the back yard and somebody or something walking by on the gravel; kind of cool for we city folk to put it on while sipping lemonade.